Sanchi Stupa--A World Heritage Site

Sanchi's Great Stupa is one of India's oldest surviving Buddhist monuments.  It sits on a hilltop 30 miles northeast of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, and 6 miles south of Vidisha, a small town that was an important urban center at the turn of the common era. 

This shot shows the western gateway, and was taken on 12 November 2005. 


Religious Significance




History: The original stupa was built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (reigned 269-32 BCE), but enlarged to its present form in the 1st century CE.   The stupa later fell into ruins and disappeared, and when it was first discovered it was severely damaged by treasure-hunters (who dug into the main vault, looking for buried treasure).  In the 1880s the Archeological Survey of India began to restore it, with the major restoration between 1912 and 1919 under the leadership of Sir John Marshall.   The ASI still does the upkeep on the monument, and was doing some repairs when I visited in November 2005.  The ASI is also in the process of restoring Marshall house (at the base of the hill), in which Sir John lived during the restoration. 

Religious Significance: A stupa is a dome-shaped mound that mimics the funerary mounds used to mark the graves of great kings.  The first Buddhist stupas enshrined the Buddha's physical relics (bones and teeth), and thus gave him royal status.  Another sign of this claim is the three-layer stone umbrella visible at the top of the stupa, since the umbrella was also a royal symbol (unfortunately, these umbrellas often inadvertently also served as very effective lightning rods).  The Sanchi stupa has a walkway built halfway up the mound; the faithful would use this to circle the stupa to pay homage to the Buddha.   Motion was always clockwise, since this kept one's right side (considered better) toward the relics at the center.  The perimeter wall has a gateway at each cardinal direction, and the carvings on these illustrate events from the Buddha's life and past lives.  As with the medieval European cathedrals, these were used to impart the faith to a largely illiterate audience, and also through the stories to emphasize cultivating virtues and avoiding faults. 

Symbolism: When the Sanchi stupa was built, the Buddha was not portrayed in human form.  Maybe he was seen as having transcended human understanding, or maybe the early Buddhists wanted to underline that he had transcended the condition of birth-and-death that marks embodied existence.  Whatever the reason, in this early artwork the Buddha was portrayed by certain fixed symbols, each of which represents one of the pivotal events in his life.  These symbols are:

  • Lotus or Elephant (Birth): The lotus is a pervasive Indian symbol of spiritual growth, since the lotus seed germinates in the muck at the bottom of a pond, then the stem grows as long as is necessary (2 feet, 4 feet, 10 feet) so that the flower can blossom above the surface of the water (symbolizing transcendence of earthly circumstances).   The elephant is connected with the story of the Buddha's conception, in which his mother became pregnant when  a white elephant appeared in a dream and tapped her on the abdomen with the lotus it was holding in its trunk.  The traditional account of his birth highlights the miraculous elements: the Future Buddha emerged from his mother's side, rather than a normal delivery; upon hitting the ground he took seven steps toward the east and announced that he would be enlightened in that lifetime, and there were various celestial signs--rain and flowers falling from a clear sky, a cool breeze, melodious sounds, disabled people regaining their faculties, and many, many others.   This is traditionally believed to have occurred in Lumbini in southeastern Nepal.
  • Tree (Enlightenment): This is the most important of the four events, since this is what made him the Buddha ("Enlightened One").  According to tradition, the Buddha renounced his home after seeing the Four Signs: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering monk.  Old age, illness, and death are inevitable parts of life--and for the Buddha seemed to have been a shorthand for all of life's unsatisfactory elements--whereas the fourth was a hint that these could be transcended.  According to tradition, the Buddha left his home at the age of 29, and spent the next six years studying with various teachers and trying various techniques (most notably strict fasting) to find the solution to old age, illness, and death, but was unsuccessful.  He then sat down underneath a ficus tree in Bodh Gaya (modern Bihar), and began to meditate on the question of birth-and-death with a focused mind.  His analysis eventually revealed the causal chain that leads to rebirth, known as pratityasamutpada ("Interdependent Origination"), in which each element provides the cause for the one that follows (for a Tibetan view of this causal chain, click on the link above).
  • Wheel (Preaching the First Sermon): The wheel symbolizes the third great event in the historical Buddha's life, in which he "turned the wheel of dharma" by preaching his first sermon (The Four Noble Truths) at Sarnath, near modern Benares.  If the tree stands for the enlightened being, the wheel represents his career as a teacher.  In order to find suitable hearers for his message, the Buddha walked 130 miles to Sarnath from Bodh Gaya (where he was enlightened).  According to tradition he was enlightened on the full moon in Vaisakh (April-May); this is the hottest part of the year, with temperatures hitting over 110 degrees every day.  Tradition relates that the Buddha was initially reluctant to teach others, since he reportedly doubted whether others would be able to understand what he was trying to convey, but traveling such a long distance in such blistering heat testifies to the strength of his resolve.
  • Stupa (Parinirvana): Even though after he became enlightened the Buddha passed beyond being subject to birth and death (or rather ensured that he would not be reborn after his present life), his body was like any other human body.  At the age of 80--a very long life for that time--he ate a bad meal (either pork or mushrooms, the text is ambiguous and can be read either way), got dysentery, and died of dehydration (the story is so inglorious it is more likely to be true).  Tradition reports that he maintained his composure to the end, even blessing the man who had fed him that meal, and also directed his followers to burn his body and then place the remains in a stupa.  His rationale was that this was the burial mode for kings, and so here he was claiming at least equal status with these rulers. 

Acknowledgements:  The primary source for identifying the content in the scenes from these gateways (other than the markers at the site itself) is Debala Mitra's Sanchi, (2nd ed.) New Delhi: Archeological Survey of India, 1965.

On to Next Page (Eastern Gateway, Exterior)


Introduction East Gate:  Exterior / Interior West Gate: Exterior / Interior Final Shots
South Gate: Exterior / Interior North Gate: Exterior / Interior


Buddhism Picture Index

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Last modified 27 December 2005